Tchaikovsky: A Life
by Alexander Poznansky (continued)
In September 1865, Anton Rubinstein's brother Nikolay offered Tchaikovsky the post of teacher (later professor) of harmony in the classes sponsored by the Moscow branch of the Russian Musical Society, which would shortly become the Moscow Conservatory under Nikolay Rubinstein's directorship. Tchaikovsky moved to Moscow on 5/17 January 1866, where Nikolay Rubinstein welcomed him, providing him not only with accommodation in rooms in his own apartment, but also introducing him to his circle of friends, which included writers, musicians, and publishers. Tchaikovsky found teaching rather a strain, but Nikolay Rubinstein’s constant enthusiasm and encouragement were to have the most palliative effect on him. At a concert on 4/16 March 1866, Rubinstein conducted Tchaikovsky's Overture in F major to great success, which encouraged the composer's faith in his own potential. He began to work on his First Symphony, but found this a far from simple matter: he was unable to sleep and suffered from terrible headaches and depression.
At the end of November, his Symphony No. 1, entitled "Winter Daydreams" (Зимние грезы), Op. 13, was complete. Nikolay Rubinstein had offered to give the work its first performance, but Tchaikovsky refused because he wanted first to hear the opinions of Zaremba and Anton Rubinstein from Saint Petersburg. Apparently they did not like the symphony, and it was only after revisions had been made and two movements were tried out in separate performances, that the complete symphony was heard for the first time in February 1868 with Nikolay Rubinstein conducting.
In March 1867 Tchaikovsky started to work on an opera The Voyevoda to a libretto by the well-known Russian playwright Aleksandr Ostrovsky. Tchaikovsky lost the libretto and, despite Ostrovsky's efforts to reconstruct it, their collaboration ended in failure, and Tchaikovsky himself completed the libretto on Ostrovsky’s plot .Tchaikovsky spent the summer of 1867 in Finland and Estonia, where he composed a set of piano pieces Souvenir de Hapsal (Воспоминание о Гапсале), Op. 2. After returning to Moscow, he continued to work on The Voyevoda, and in February 1868 he was invited to conduct some extracts from it at a charity concert. Music from The Voyevoda was well received, even by the "Mighty Handful," who were making their presence known in Russian composition at that time. Later that spring Tchaikovsky went to Saint Petersburg, where he met members of the "Mighty Handful" personally, and also visited the composer Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky. In January 1868 he became friendly with the self-appointed leader of the group, Mily Balakirev, whom he sent a score of his new tone-poem Fatum, which did not meet with Balakirev's approval.
In the spring of 1866 Tchaikovsky made the acquaintance of the actor and baritone Konstantin de Lazari. A companionable socialite, de Lazari knew everyone in Moscow theatrical circles, and introduced his new friend to the actors and their milieu. It was de Lazari who brought Tchaikovsky to the club, “the Artistic Circle,” where Tchaikovsky enjoyed spending time, and it was he who brought Tchaikovsky to the home of Vladimir Begichev, the director of repertory for the Moscow theatres. Here the young composer was introduced to Begichev's wife Mariya, and her two sons from her first marriage—Konstantin and Vladimir Shilovsky.
According to Modest Tchaikovsky, "the chief interest for our composer in his acquaintance with the Begichevs lay in the personality of the younger of the Shilovsky brothers, Vladimir. He was then a fourteen-year-old boy, weak and sickly; as a result he had a neglected education, but was endowed, as it seemed then, with a phenomenal capacity for music. In addition, his appearance was unusually lovely, his manners most originally charming and his mind, despite his poor education, sharp and observant" . Vladimir Shilovsky apparently studied music for some time at the Moscow Conservatory and Tchaikovsky came to be his tutor in music theory after that. He was bound to his student not only by Shilovsky's talent, but also in great measure "by that love verging on adoration which he instilled in the boy" . Though Tchaikovsky's profound attachment to Shilovsky cannot be doubted, the emotional initiative almost always issued from the opposite direction, namely from pupil to teacher.
Initially Tchaikovsky appears to have been delighted with his new young friend, but during the later years of their acquaintance their relations deteriorated, becoming stormy, unpleasant and uncomfortable, full of unpleasant scenes and ruptures as a consequence of Shilovsky’s intractable character.
During the 1866–67 season Vladimir Shilovsky's compositions were already being performed in public concerts and productions, while later he would be commissioned by Tchaikovsky to write an entr'acte to the second act of the latter’s opera The Oprichnik. It was Shilovsky to whom Tchaikovsky dedicated his Third Symphony, as well as the Two Pieces for piano, opus 10.
On 26 May/7 June 1868, Tchaikovsky departed on an extended European vacation in the company of Vladimir Shilovsky, his stepfather Vladimir Begichev, and their mutual friend Konstantin de Lazari. Shilovsky had not only invited Tchaikovsky to join them but also paid all his travel expenses. Returning to Saint Petersburg in early August, Tchaikovsky went to visit his brothers in Estonia.
It seems that Tchaikovsky enjoyed life in Vladimir Shilovsky's circle because of their mutual homosexuality. Recent archival studies have revealed the conventional perception of Tchaikovsky as a person tormented by his difference to be unfounded . This perception was based on two largely unsupported assumptions. First, that 19th-century Russia was a society characterized by sexual repression; and second, that as a consequence Tchaikovsky developed a particular fear of exposure and self-hatred. In fact, the Russia of that period happens to have been a society considerably more permissive than, say, Victorian England. Russia had no legal ban on homosexuality until Peter the Great in the early 18th century, and even then the ban only extended to the army. Homosexuality was criminalized in 1832 by Nicholas I, but the law was virtually never enforced. When matters concerned members of the upper classes, homosexual incidents were covered up by the authorities, the guilty parties, at worst, being transferred from one official position to another. Among Tchaikovsky's contemporaries, one may identify several homosexual members of the Imperial family, the most prominent of them being Grand Duke Sergey Aleksandrovich, governor of Moscow. One of the most powerful statesmen under the Emperors Alexander III and Nicholas II, Prince Vladimir Meshchersky (who was, incidentally, Tchaikovsky's schoolmate and friend) was repeatedly rescued by the two Emperors from disgrace despite his flagrant homosexual activities. One may list many other individuals of similar status in Russian society . The tradition of serfdom, even after the latter was abolished in 1861, continued to exert a powerful effect on social behaviour of both upper and lower classes. According to established patterns of conduct, socially inferior people were expected to submit to the wishes of the socially superior in every respect, including the gratification of sexual desire. Russian peasants were traditionally tolerant of all varieties of sexual preferences among their masters and were often prepared to satisfy them on demand. This naturally resulted in boundless "sexploitation" which, at the same time, explains the sexual affairs with servants and other lower class persons so characteristic of Tchaikovsky and his milieu—a kind of hierarchical sex .
As far as Tchaikovsky's own attitude to his sexual predicament is concerned, he could not of course fully neglect societal convention and, generally speaking, was rather conservative by temperament. In addition, in his youth he was repeatedly pressured to marry, and at some point he conceived the idea that he could change his sexual orientation and successfully live with a woman in order to ease his own life and mollify his relatives. Even at that stage, however, he considered his homosexual tendencies natural and in no way his own fault.
The autumn of 1868 was marked for Tchaikovsky with an altogether new amorous development. This time it was an "affair" with the well-known Belgian mezzo-soprano Désirée Artôt, which, while ultimately and predictably doomed to failure because of Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality, nevertheless proceeded to the point of betrothal. Artôt, having studied under the famous French singer Pauline Viardot, began singing with the Paris Opera in 1858. Ten years later she arrived in Moscow with a mediocre Italian opera company under the direction of Merelli. The fact that Artôt belonged wholly to the world of art and music formed the psychological basis of Tchaikovsky's infatuation. It seems that the composer fell in love not so much with her as with her voice and her performance, the more so as she was neither very young, being five years Tchaikovsky's senior, nor exceptionally beautiful, according to some contemporary memoirs.
Wishful thinking regarding his own abilities for a heterosexual lifestyle and continuing pressure from his father, who passionately wished to see his son married, led Tchaikovsky to believe that he could marry Désirée Artôt. He met her for the first time very briefly in the spring of 1868 but her name does not begin to appear in his letters until her autumn performances in Moscow. He admits in his letter of 21 October/2 November to his brother Anatoly: "I am now on very friendly terms with Artôt and enjoy her very noticeable favour; rarely have I met a woman so lovely, intelligent and kind" .
By the end of December Tchaikovsky's infatuation with Artôt was obvious to all. He wrote some music for her, and even began to discuss marriage plans with his father.
It appears that Artôt's mother probably found out about Tchaikovsky's sexual orientation and took control of the situation. At the end of January Tchaikovsky heard that his beloved had married a Spanish baritone Don Mariano Padilla y Ramos in Warsaw. Although he was upset by the news, Tchaikovsky recovered from the disappointment quite quickly, as could be expected.
The premiere of The Voyevoda took place at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow on 30 January/11 February 1869. Despite initial success, interest in the opera soon evaporated, and it was withdrawn from the repertoire after only five performances. Two weeks after the premiere Nikolay Rubinstein conducted the first performance of the symphonic poem Fatum. The public reaction was favourable, but again, as in case of The Voyevoda, this success was short-lived. After Balakirev’s harsh criticism of its Saint Petersburg performance, Tchaikovsky refused to allow the work to be published and, a few years later, destroyed the score. It was reconstructed after his death on the basis of some discovered orchestral parts. The same fate befell his opera The Voyevoda, from which Tchaikovsky decided to retain only the overture, one chorus, an entr'acte and the dances.
Struggling for recognition, the young composer started work on another opera, this time based on a Russian translation of Friedrich de la Motte-Fouqué’s famous tale Undina. On 6/18 August 1869 he submitted the finished opera to the Opera Directorate of the Imperial Theatres. Two years later the work was formally rejected and, like its predecessor, consigned to the flames by the composer himself. He saved only four pieces from it which were used later in the Symphony No. 2, the ballet Swan Lake (Лебединое озеро) and in the incidental music to Ostrovsky's play The Snow Maiden (Снегурочка).
In the autumn of 1869 Tchaikovsky met in Moscow with Balakirev, who encouraged the composer to begin a new tone-poem based on Shakespeare's tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The Russian obsession with love and death, themes that permeate the story of the young lovers from Verona, almost immediately fired Tchaikovsky's imagination. Romeo and Juliet was heard for the first time at a concert in Moscow on 4/16 March 1870, conducted by Nikolay Rubinstein, but the composer immediately made extensive revisions and modifications at Balakirev’s suggestion. Tchaikovsky retained a very high opinion of Romeo and Juliet until the end of his life.
It is ironic that the tragic situation so well presented by Tchaikovsky in his tone-poem had real-life implications. About the same time, he was involved in a passionate affair with a student at the Moscow Conservatory, Eduard Sack (Zak), which ended in Sack's suicide on 2/14 November 1873. Fourteen years after the young man's death, Tchaikovsky wrote in his diary: "It seems to me that I have never loved anyone so strongly as him... and his memory is sacred to me!" .
Tchaikovsky's relationships with young men were starting to cause disconcerting talk and gossip in Moscow musical circles, but despite this he continued to pursue his love affairs. He rushed off to join Vladimir Shilovsky, after the latter fell seriously ill in Paris in 1870, and the two travelled together for some time following Shilovsky's recuperation.
In the autumn of 1871, Tchaikovsky finally rented a small apartment of his own, furnished with a sofa, a few chairs and two pictures (one a portrait of Anton Rubinstein, the other of Louis XVII, the dauphin who died in the aftermath of the French Revolution and whom Tchaikovsky had adored from childhood). He also took on a manservant, Mikhail Sofronov (soon to be supplanted by the latter’s younger brother Aleksey), a peasant boy from the Klin region near Moscow. About this time, Tchaikovsky began to supplement his small income as a Conservatory professor by writing music criticism for the Moscow newspaper Russian Register (Русские ведомости).
In May 1872 he finished his third opera, The Oprichnik (adapted from a tragedy by the historical novelist Ivan Lazhechnikov and set during the reign of Ivan the Terrible), and, while staying at Kamenka during the summer, he began work on his Symphony No. 2, later dubbed the "Little Russian." The new symphony was received enthusiastically in February 1873. Encouraged, Tchaikovsky proceeded to his next project, incidental music for Ostrovsky's play The Snow Maiden. After another vacation in Europe, he spent almost the whole of August at Shilovsky’s estate at Usovo, near Kiev, where he sketched out a new symphonic fantasia, The Tempest (Буря), based on Shakespeare's play. The Tempest was a great success at its first performance in Moscow in early December.
On 12/24 April 1874 The Oprichnik was first performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg. Despite some initial success, the opera did not convince the composer’s critics. César Cui attacked the music as "barren of ideas" and "without a single outstanding passage or a single happy inspiration" . Tchaikovsky found himself agreeing with the critics: "The Oprichnik torments me", he confided to his cousin Anna Merkling . The failure of the opera spoiled his journey to Italy, where he went right after the premiere in his capacity as music critic. He returned to Russia seized by an intense desire to prove to himself and others that he was capable of better things than The Oprichnik. By mid/late June, while staying at the Nizy estate owned by his society friend Nikolay Kondratyev, he started another opera, this time to a libretto based on Nikolay Gogols story Christmas Eve (Ночь перед Рождеством).
A few years earlier, the music patron Grand Duchess Yelena Pavlovna had commissioned a libretto for an opera based on Gogol’s tale from the poet Yakov Polonsky. It had originally been intended for Aleksandr Serov, but the latter had died in 1871 without commencing the project. The Grand Duchess decided to offer a prize in Serov’s memory for the best setting of the libretto. Upon her own death in 1873 responsibility for the competition passed to the Russian Musical Society. Having learned that Balakirev, Anton Rubinstein and Rimsky-Korsakov were not competing, and under the impression that the closing date for entry was 1/13 August 1874, Tchaikovsky finished his new opera within a month to discover that he would be obliged to wait a full year for the decision. Although Tchaikovsky eventually won first prize, the setting did not impress the public and the opera Vakula the Smith was abandoned. Nine years later, the composer radically revised it under the new title Cherevichki (or "The Slippers"). In 1895 the same story became the subject for Rimsky-Korsakov's opera Christmas Eve.
In November 1874 Tchaikovsky began working on his First Piano Concerto, a complete draft of which he had completed by 24 December 1874/5 January 1875, when he played it for Nikolay Rubinstein. Three years later he described Rubinstein's reaction on that occasion in a letter to Mrs. von Meck: "I patiently played the concerto to the end: it was greeted with silence. I got up and asked, ‘What do you think of it?’ Suddenly a torrent of words gushed from Rubinstein's lips, getting louder and fiercer every minute until he sounded like Jove the Thunderer. According to him my concerto was no good at all, impossible to play, with many awkward passages... so poorly composed that it would be impossible to correct them. The composition was vulgar, and I had stolen bits from here, there, and everywhere... I was not only astonished but offended by this scene". Stunned, the composer left the room without a word. Presently, Rubinstein came to Tchaikovsky and seeing how upset he was, tried to soften the blow by saying that if Tchaikovsky agreed to revise the piece, he would introduce it at one of his concerts. "I won't alter a single note," answered Tchaikovsky, "I shall publish the work precisely as it stands!" .
The concerto was indeed published exactly as it stood, but Tchaikovsky did eventually make alterations, particularly to the piano part. He decided to dedicate it not to his student at the Moscow Conservatory, the future composer Sergey Taneyev, as he had originally intended, but to the famous German pianist Hans von Bülow, whom Tchaikovsky had heard in a recital at the Bolshoi Theatre the previous March. Bülow, highly flattered by the dedication, gave the first successful performance of the B♭ minor concerto in Boston on 13/25 October 1875. Five days later, Tchaikovsky attended the première of the concerto in Saint Petersburg. Despite excellent forces—the pianist was Tchaikovsky’s old school friend, Gustav Kross, and the conductor Eduard Nápravník—the reviews were almost all unfavourable. When, later that autumn, Taneyev performed the "impossible" work at a concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow with Nikolay Rubinstein conducting, the concerto was proclaimed an instant success.
Tchaikovsky spent the summer of 1875 with his sister's family at Kamenka, his brother-in-law's estate in Ukraine. Here, Tchaikovsky composed his Third Symphony, this time in five movements, two of them in dance style. The symphony has since been nicknamed the "Polish", for no more reason than the marking "Tempo di polacca" of the Finale. Performed for the first time on 7/19 November with Nikolay Rubinstein conducting, the symphony gained almost immediate acclaim.
In August, Tchaikovsky began work on what was to become the first of his famed trilogy of ballets—Swan Lake—which was commissioned by the Imperial Theatres in Moscow. Throughout the winter months the work progressed steadily and was finished by 10/22 April 1876. Meanwhile he also accepted a commission from the editor of Nuvellist (Нувеллист), a music magazine, to compose a series of twelve piano pieces, which became popularly known as The Seasons (Времена года).
At the very end of 1875, the composer left Russia together with his brother Modest and the latter's deaf-mute 7-year-old pupil Nikolay Konradi. The two brothers decided to go to Paris via Germany and Switzerland. Modest was planning to study the latest methods of teaching deaf-mutes in Lyons at a private school. While in Paris, Tchaikovsky experienced one of the strongest musical impressions of his entire life when he attended a performance of Bizet's Carmen at the Opéra Comique. In late January/early February he returned to Russia, but he met up with Modest in France the next June. After about a month there Tchaikovsky travelled to Germany, where he attended the first festival devoted entirely to Wagner's Der Ring des Niebelungen. During his stay he made the acquaintance of Liszt, but he failed to meet Wagner himself. Tired by his stay at Bayreuth, Tchaikovsky returned to Kamenka on 11/23 August.
On 14/26 October he completed the symphonic fantasia Francesca da Rimini, which he claimed to have worked on "with love, and that love, it seems, has come out quite well" . At the end of 1876 he was honoured by a visit from Lev Tolstoy, whom he greatly admired. The premiere of Swan Lake took place on 20 February/4 March 1877. Owing to terrible choreography and a poor orchestra, the ballet was not the success the composer had hoped for, but it remained in the repertory for another four seasons.
This page was last updated on 16 February 2013